Editor's note: This is the first article in the Aiken Standard's three-part series called The Race Talk, highlighting generational talks about racism.
As a professor of sociology, Dr. Melencia Johnson has experience discussing polarizing subjects in the classroom.
"I typically start talking about race (on the) first day of class," Johnson said. "…We talk about a variety of races. We also talk about how it's socially constructed, and I think that might be the biggest challenge right there. For students to realize that race is created."
Johnson, an associate professor of sociology at USC Aiken, covers a variety of topics with students in her classes, from gender to race to delinquent youth behavior.
It can be an uncomfortable experience, Johnson said, for her students to have to talk about social experiences from vastly different perspectives for the first time; but it's a talk she believes is more important now than ever to have, especially given the events that have unfolded after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year.
"It’s the old adage of, ‘If you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it,'" Johnson said. "I think that we’re kind of approaching that time right now. It’s been decades of us not talking about race. Not talking about racism, not talking about how racism impacts the experiences and opportunities of a variety of people in this nation. I think that the more we talk about it, the more we recognize the experiences of people different from us, the more likely we are to fight for equality and equity of those people and make a better nation as a result."
From a sociological perspective – and from a teacher's perspective – Johnson said conversations about race and prejudice can vary vastly within families, particularly Black families.
Black parents and guardians have the difficult decision, Johnson said, to decide whether to prepare their children for the possibility of racism – especially regarding their interactions with law enforcement – or shield them from it.
"It's kind of hard to pinpoint a definition of 'the talk' because it varies depending on your family and your social location," Johnson said. "So, of course, generally speaking, it's a conversation parents have … where their youth have a greater chance of being assaulted or approached by the police when they are just existing. And so, to have that conversation, it's different for everyone."
Discussing race relations with children can be a difficult topic for any parent, Johnson said. Especially if those parents were discouraged from discussing divisive or sensitive topics by their own parents.
This is why Johnson not only feels she has to teach the subject of sociology, but she often has to coax her students into being comfortable enough to discuss it.
"I am a Black woman teaching a class in sociology, so you talk about race and class and gender identity (and things) that many people just don’t have conversations about at home," Johnson said. "And those are things that you are taught – don’t talk about race at the table, don’t talk about politics, don’t talk about religion. And here we are in a class setting, and I’m expecting you to discuss things with me.
"I typically approach it like everyone has an open mind," Johnson said. "Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. But I want everyone to feel as comfortable as I do talking about the subject."
Johnson herself didn't have too many discussions growing up about police brutality as it relates to race.
She was raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, and said she enjoyed a privileged life and had good relationships with the local sheriff's department. Though her family was the only non-white family on their street for a very long time, she didn't feel different from her peers or friends.
"I remember things when I started to drive," Johnson said. "Make sure you have your registration and your insurance in the top of your glove compartment so that you can pull it out really quickly … It was just the little things, little tidbits that you would get; and I always assumed that my friends would get the same little bits of information, but they didn’t. And I realized … that I was getting a few lessons that my best friends did not have, who happened to be white."
Johnson said there can be trauma in reliving racist experiences, which may be why some people are reluctant to speak about such topics to young generations; but given the vast amount of information available to children today, it's important that families begin to talk about the subject at some point.
"From a sociological perspective … I think they (young people) are more energized to have these conversations," Johnson said.
As a scholar who broaches these topics frequently with younger generations, Johnson said there are a variety of books, documentaries and other resources available to parents who may be curious about how to speak with their children about ongoing current events.